Novelist Andrew Taylor explores the childhood favourites that made him the writer he is today.
I have a theory that childhood reading maketh the man or woman. A few of the books I read and re-read as a child and young teenager survived the Stalinist purges of later adolescence and young adulthood. These are the books I liked before I developed a critical faculty, presumably because they satisfied a primitive desire for the magic of narrative, pattern and myth. In my case, some of them undoubtedly nudged me into becoming a historical novelist.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels are high on the list. My favourites were, and are, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers. Rereading them as an adult I was struck by the quality of her writing, and the empathy that Sutcliff clearly felt with the past. These three novels do something else, of course – they chart the progress of the Roman Empire in Britain over three hundred years: in doing so, they teach us about time, about the way the past is never static – it evolves.
I also read a lot of Ronald Welch’s novels, which centre on the activities of D’Aubigny and Carey family from the Third Crusade to the twentieth century. Welch was a schoolmaster who had seen service in World War II, and to some extent the books reflect this. Typically, the plots concern a diffident young man who goes to war, learns to be a good soldier and acquires maturity in the process. The best parts of the books, for adult readers at least, concern the lovingly researched backgrounds: Knight Crusader (1954) is still a good place to start if you want to find out about the Third Crusade and what it might actually have felt like to wear chain mail and fight on horseback under the broiling sun of the Middle East.
I discovered Margaret Irwin’s Still She Wished for Company (1924) via her historical novels. It’s about an odd not-quite love affair that develops between a twentieth woman and an eighteenth-century rake. It’s an oddly unsettling time-slip story in which the past and present interpenetrate each other. There are still lessons there for anyone who writes historical fiction.
Not all my childhood survivors are fiction. One of the exceptions is Ulysses Found (1963) by Ernle Bradford. Bradford sailed the Mediterranean using The Odyssey as his guide: he argues that the story of Ulysses’ wanderings could well have been based on a historical voyage. It’s an exciting idea in itself, and it reminds us all that myth and legend can sometimes have a closer relationship to history than we think.
Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) was published as a mystery novel featuring Tey’s series detective, Inspector Grant. In reality, of course, it is an investigation into the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, in which Tey exonerates Richard III of their murder. For me, the significance of this book is that it showed historical fiction could be a way of interrogating history, and of throwing new light on it. Fiction sometimes allows you to see the past more clearly than fact can ever do.
All of us have books like this – the ones that made us the writers we are; the ones that gave us a taste for the past. It pays to remember them.